The questions to surface following the release of Once Upon a Secret , a former White House intern’s memoir about her 18-month-long affair with John F. Kennedy, are practically bound to go something like this: Why on earth write this book now, 50 years later? Don’t we know enough about JFK’s sex life? And aren’t some things better left private?
Yet whatever Mimi Beardsley Alford’s intentions for writing the book may be, there is a value to the memoir. As presidential historian Robert Dallek says, it will serve to balance out the perception of JFK, who has become a “rock star, a mythological figure—he’s no longer a real person.” Dallek told the Post’s Reliable Source blog that “you’re not going to put the genie back in the bottle anymore,” adding that the personal lives of our leaders have “become part of the public discourse.”
Sure, this is hardly the first time Kennedy’s sex life has been in the spotlight. Dallek himself chronicled it in part of his Kennedy biography An Unfinished Life, which made a brief mention of Alford. Other books have dug into the matter at length. A miniseries that featured Kennedy’s womanizing became headline news and was cancelled or passed over by several cable channels. It was a different era, some point out, when such dalliances were kept under wraps.
Still, Alford’s book adds to the character history of one of the most iconic men to run this country. The decisions that make up a president’s character do not stop at the end of his desk. The way he treats the people he has made vows to, the way he treats people who worked for his administration—no matter the environment or the era—these are important questions for history, and how it views his legacy.
For all Newt Gingrich might complain about being asked about his marital past in a debate, it does matter. Voters may choose to ignore it, believing that the candidate’s professional intelligence, experience or expertise outweigh his or her personal weaknesses. That is their right. And yes, a president who makes questionable choices in his marital or sex life may still very well be a solid chief executive. Personal weakness does not necessarily indicate professional ineptitude, though there are often links between the two.
But as the leader of this country, the way a president comports hinself in his personal life is an issue worth examining—even decades later. That’s because the president should be, even if he often isn’t, more than just a political decision-maker. The president should be a spiritual figure during national crises, an inspirational guidepost for future leaders and, ideally, as Dallek says, someone who “represent[s] the best of America.” We owe it to history to cut through the mystique and know whether or not our presidents really were, so that we might learn from them to find better leaders for tomorrow.
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